The title of Woolf's essay is a key part of her thesis: that a woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to be able to write. Woolf argues that a woman needs financial freedom so as to be able to control her own space and life—to be unhindered by interruptions and sacrifices—in order to gain intellectual freedom and therefore be able to write. Further, she argues that such financial and intellectual freedom has historically been kept from women, with the result that nearly all women, even those with literary talent and ambition, are unable to achieve their goals or potential because of a lack of opportunity to engage in sustained work and thought.
As the narrator, Woolf examines her own life and the financial inheritance she received from her aunt, which gave her "five hundred a year", a very respectable sum for a young woman to live on. So, unlike women of lower class or without such good fortune, she was able to look forward to life of financial security and could actually focus on writing. She then imagines the fate of women without such a secure, personal income, imagines how impossible the task of writing would seem even if one had the ambition to do it. The rare examples she is able to cite of middle-class or lower-class women who decided to write, Aphra Behn for example, were not even seen as admirable women by society, and were instead belittled and thought almost unnatural. Because of that, Behn was seen not as a model for younger women to follow but rather a deterrent against a life of "living by one's wits."
It is abundantly clear throughout the lectures that Woolf is not just making this argument to express her own views or to tell a story – she sees herself as having a job to do, and it is no coincidence that she is speaking in front of a group of scholarly young women with their professional lives ahead of them. Woolf makes sure that she directs her argument to these young women in the hope that they will decide to change the fate of the next generation of women by providing them with a literary legacy and good fortune.
Financial and Intellectual Freedom ThemeTracker
Financial and Intellectual Freedom Quotes in A Room of One's Own
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
What force is behind that plain china off which we dined, and (here it popped out of my mouth before I could stop it) the beef, the custard and the prunes?
Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.
What one wants, I thought—and why does not some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton supply it?--is a mass of information; at what age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like, had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking; would she be likely to have a servant?
What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.
All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, […] for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.
She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?
Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.
Awkward though she was and without the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had—I began to think—mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.
Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.
The sight of two people coming down the street and meeting at the corner seems to ease the mind of some strain, I thought, watching the taxi turn and make off.
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.